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2022 NFL Draft, ACC preview: North Carolina’s Sam Howell top prospect, Clemson reloads on offense

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The ACC has been down in recent years outside of Clemson. Will the 2021 campaign bring Florida State or Miami’s return to prominence? Will Boston College, North Carolina or a dark horse challenge the Tigers for the conference crown? And who are the top draft prospects in the conference? CBS Sports breaks down the transcendent talent that should be on the radar of every draft aficionado ahead of the ACC opener between NC State and South Florida on Sept. 2.

Boston College

Wide receiver Zay Flowers is quick and shows natural body control. Following a year where undersized receivers were all the rage — 10 of the 15 taken in the first three rounds were listed at 6-foot or shorter — Flowers (5-11) jumps out as one of the prospects who could receive similar early round buzz.

Offensive tackle Tyler Vrabel — son of Titans head coach Mike Vrabel — is controlled into his pass sets and blocks with good leverage. He is not the most athletic prospect in this tackle class, but he does an adequate job of staying connected to defenders. Offensive guard Zion Johnson is a great run blocker who plays with good leverage and balance. 

Clemson

The Tigers lost five starters from last year’s offense, but no one is feeling sorry for the perennial contender. Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei showed that he can be a really productive player when Trevor Lawrence was absent last season. Uiagalelei is not eligible for the 2022 NFL Draft, but is certainly one to keep an eye on next season. 

Clemson has a stable of wide receiver talent yet again. The big news of the week was that Justyn Ross was cleared to return from the 2020 offseason spinal surgery that kept him out last season. Although Ross is very gifted and responsible for big catches in recent history, it is actually Joe Ngata who stands out from a draft perspective. His exposure has been limited (just 24 total catches in two seasons) but he flashes brilliance. Frank Ladson Jr. also should be drafted at the position. 

And if you believe in iron sharpening iron, then Clemson practices are the place for you. Despite parting ways with projected early round cornerback selection Derion Kendrick, who transferred to Georgia, the team boasts three talented players in the secondary: cornerbacks Sheridan Jones and Andrew Booth and safety Nolan Turner. The former two appear to be prospects worthy of early-round consideration. The aforementioned wide receivers are being tested on a daily basis and vice versa. 

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Tight end Davis Allen is a respectable pass catcher who also takes pride in his blocking ability. Along the defensive front seven, Tyler Davis and K.J. Henry are most noteworthy for the upcoming draft. Bryan Bresee and Marcus Murphy dominated as true freshmen and should be first-round picks in the 2023 NFL Draft if they continue to hold turf. 

Duke

The Blue Devils do not have any players that jump off the page as a potential top 100 pick, but they do have some good players, like running back Mateo Durant and center Jack Wohlabaugh. Wohlabaugh is returning from a torn ACL and hopes to prove that he deserves a spot in the NFL.

Florida State

The Florida State defense has seen several defections this offseason, but Robert Cooper will find himself in the conversation for teams looking to add some run stuffing capability in the form of a nose tackle-type. Linebacker Amari Gainer has some tantalizing athletic traits but looks stiff in areas that would prevent him from being successful every down. 

The Seminoles are placing a lot of faith into the hands of UCF quarterback transfer McKenzie Milton and Kansas wide receiver transfer Andrew Parchment on offense.

Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech is another program that does not offer a lot of high-end talent for the 2022 NFL Draft. Norfolk State offensive tackle transfer Kenneth Kirby has intriguing size. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs is a playmaker but ineligible to be drafted until the following year.

Louisville

From a size and athleticism standpoint, offensive tackle Adonis Boone is noteworthy. Boone is an easy mover but the Florida native oversets too often. Quarterback Malik Cunningham has some promising traits. The two most highly-regarded talents could be on the defensive side of the ball, however. Liberty cornerback transfer Kei’Trel Clark is slight of frame but has fast feet. The potential in his game is evident. Linebacker Monty Montgomery is a bit undersized by traditional standards but that has become less of an issue in the modern day game. Montgomery moves really well and there is some buzz around him in Louisville.

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Miami

Offensive tackle Zion Nelson is a physical specimen with long arms. He needs to marry his feet with his hands and improve his technique overall but his physical profile looks like that of an All-Pro lineman. 

Safety Bubba Bolden was a top high school recruit and, similar to former teammate Jaelan Phillips, displayed as much in his second season with the Hurricanes. His athletic ability was always evident but he started to combine that with plays in coverage. If he continues to progress at the same rate, he will have a chance to become the second safety off the board.

Tight end Will Mallory operated in the shadows last fall as outgoing Brevin Jordan made his case for the next level. With the door now wide open, Mallory will have the opportunity to show that he is a well-rounded player in the mold of former Hurricane Greg Olsen. D’Eriq King is an intriguing talent with a place in the NFL if he is willing to compromise. He is not going to be a quarterback but his athleticism will earn a look.

North Carolina

Quarterback Sam Howell will be in contention to become the first quarterback taken in the 2022 NFL Draft. Howell may not possess the elite physical stature of Trevor Lawrence or the arm talent of Patrick Mahomes, but his endearing trait is his leadership. The North Carolina native gives off Baker Mayfield vibes in the way that he plays the game and carries himself.

Offensive guard Josh Ezeudu has some versatility playing multiple positions, but his pad level gets too high at times. His frame is ideal but he struggles to lock onto defenders in space. 

North Carolina State  

NC State has a bit of a poor man’s 2020 North Carolina going on with skill talent littering the roster. Wide receivers Emeka Emezie and Thayer Thomas are respectable players, with running backs Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. toting the rock. Knight has the ability to be a top 100 caliber player. Wide receiver Porter Rooks is another promising young player who will not be eligible for the 2022 NFL Draft.

Tackle Ikem Ekwonu is one of several offensive line prospects who have an ideal physical profile and the athleticism to become a really effective NFL player, but there is work to be done before he is considered a lock for the first round.

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Pittsburgh

Quarterback Kenny Pickett might be the source of some head scratching plays, but his size and arm talent will entice NFL teams. Pickett’s ceiling likely will not reach the first round, but Day 2 is not unrealistic. His pass catchers did him few favors a year ago. He has moderate mobility.

Syracuse

Cornerback Garrett Williams has great speed and excels mirroring the wide receiver down the boundary. Williams is not afraid to be physical. His tackling technique could use some work and his hips open too wide on breaks. There are impressive aspects of his game, but he falls short of a first round projection right now.

Virginia

No one jumps off the page as an early round pick from this current Cavaliers team. Safety Joey Blount and defensive lineman Mandy Alonso are a couple of notable names to know. 

Virginia Tech

Since November, an astonishing 18 players have entered the transfer portal at Virginia Tech, according to 247Sports. There has been significant roster turnover in Blacksburg, but a few players stand out as being of interest to NFL teams. Tight end James Mitchell is an above-average blocker built like an H-Back. He lacks great top end speed but has a knack for sitting in the soft spots of zone coverage.

Offensive guard Lecitus Smith has a low center of gravity and plays the game with a mean streak. He is quick out of his stance and controlled into his pass stance but his hands need to become more disciplined.

Wake Forest

The Demon Deacons had a talented young running back by the name of Kenneth Walker III but he transferred to Michigan State after the season. Wide receivers Donovan Greene and Jaquarii Roberson are the most interesting prospects remaining in the program. Greene was just a redshirt freshman in 2020 so there is no rush to send him off to the next level. His endearing trait is his ability to create separation whereas Roberson’s strength is his body control. Neither is a top 100 player for me right now, but there is a path for Greene to get there.


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